Museums balk at the idea of being gatekeepers, yet so few in the UK provide open access to digital images of their collection. At a time when museums have greatly developed their digital engagement programmes, online collections continue to deter people from finding and using images.
It is extraordinary that so much thought goes into how to stop people using images. Online images are often too small to see detail, watermarked to stop reuse or slapped with a proscriptive licence that limits use. The most common argument for digitisation is to provide access to collections, but this is severely curtailed, reducing reach and usage.
Museums have created a proprietary approach to images by laying claim to copyright in the photography of works long out of copyright. The need to do this for income generation is a shallow argument, as it is difficult to make money from image licensing. Museums cling to business models that no longer work, and by deterring academics and researchers, limit knowledge generation.
Policies must change if museums want people to use their images, and inspire innovation and research. The Heritage Fund’s open licensing requirement is a great step forward. Birmingham Museums’ open access policy has led to 134 million views and 1 million downloads of images on the photography website Unsplash in 2020-21.
Linda Spurdle is the digital development manager at Birmingham Museums Trust